Italy pressures Dutch and French over storm-tossed migrant rescue ship

FILE PHOTO: The migrant search and rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, operated by German NGO Sea-Watch, is seen off the coast of Malta in the central Mediterranean January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s governing coalition leaders on Friday cranked up pressure on European Union partners, especially the Netherlands and France, to welcome a humanitarian boat carrying 47 migrants that is being blocked from Italian ports.

The Sea Watch 3, run by a German humanitarian group, plucked the migrants out of a rubber boat off Libya on Saturday. Since then it has been sailing through high winds and 7-metre (23 ft) waves.

With little space on board, many of the migrants are forced to stay on deck, sheltering under a tarpaulin but with little heat.

Given the dire weather conditions, Italy’s coast guard on Friday told the ship it could moor 2 km (1.2 miles) off Sicily’s shore, near the city of Syracuse, but Italy continued to refuse to let it enter any port.

Later on Friday, the court of minors in the Sicilian port of Catania sent a letter to the government asking them to immediately disembark the minors, saying leaving them on board violated Italian law.

Some 13 minors are on the boat, Sea Watch said.

“We can’t wait to see them arrive, safe and sound, in other European countries. There no space (for them) in Italy,” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is head of the far-right League party, said in a statement.


Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5-Star Movement, said the ship should go to either France, which he has accused of shirking its responsibilities, or the Netherlands, which is the flag flown by the Sea Watch vessel.

“I invite (Sea Watch 3) to turn its bow toward Marseille,” Di Maio said on Facebook, referring to the port in south France.

“It would be appropriate immediately to summon the Dutch ambassador to ask him what intentions his government has. Will it ask, along with us, that Sea Watch 3 go to Marseille, or will they be disembarked in Rotterdam?” he said.

Separately, Salvini said he had written to the Dutch government asking it to take responsibility for the migrants, but The Hague said it had no intention of doing so, drawing a rebuke from Di Maio.

“If (Sea Watch 3) can stay at sea and challenge Italy every day, it’s thanks to the flag it was granted by the Dutch government,” he said, calling for the Netherlands to either offer a port or revoke the boat’s flag so it can no longer “disobey the orders of the Libyan coastguard”.

Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the migrants’ plight was worrying. “Some of them must stay outside, on the deck, since there’s not enough room inside,” he said on Twitter.

It is the second time in a month Sea Watch has been stranded at sea with rescued migrants and no safe port. The last standoff ended after 19 days and an agreement among eight EU countries, including Italy, to take in the migrants.

Italy had allowed rescue ships to dock regularly until June of last year, when the populist government took over and closed the country’s ports to them, even though boat arrivals have plunged over the past year.

The seaside cities of Palermo and Naples, among others, have said they would welcome the ship, but the central government controls who is allowed to dock in Italian ports.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer, additional reporting by Gavin Jones in Rome and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Heavens)

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